Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Julian Bond ought to have a word with Don Imus. The word is “Thanks.” Mr. Bond, national board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said almost as much when he alluded to the embattled radio showman during opening ceremonies of the 98-year-old organization’s annual convention last week.

“While we are happy to have sent a certain radio cowboy back to his ranch, we ought to hold ourselves to the same standard,” Mr. Bond said to enthusiastic applause. “If he can’t refer to our women as ‘hos,’ then we shouldn’t, either.”

As much of planet Earth knows by now, Mr. Imus lost his nationally distributed morning radio show in the uproar over his referring to the women of the Rutgers University basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”

Before his exit, an apologetic Mr. Imus played the hip-hop card. He didn’t realize at the time that his words would be so offensive, he said, because he has heard black rappers use the same language.

That wasn’t much of an excuse. Mr. Imus has been around long enough to know today’s racial etiquette. Nevertheless, his explanation made just enough of a point to have a sting. As annoying as it was to hear Mr. Imus play the hip-hop card, it was aggravating for many of us African-Americans to know the card was right there on the table, bold as an ace of spades, waiting to be played.

That stings because it raises a burning question for rap artists and everyone else: How will you earn the respect of others, if you don’t respect yourself?

That nagging question has given new life to old efforts to clean up hip-hop. Mr. Imus’ incendiary words have sparked a resurgence of public outrage by clergy, civil rights activists and black-oriented media like Ebony and Essence magazines against the self-hatred for which “the N-word” has become a leading symbol.

In that spirit, the NAACP held a mock funeral to “bury the N-word” at their convention. As a publicity stunt for an organization struggling to attract a new generation, it worked like a charm. A march by delegates through downtown Detroit with a horse-drawn coffin is tailor-made for television and the YouTube generation. But how much substance, we must ask, will follow the symbolism?

After all, this is not the first time the NAACP has held a symbolic burial in Detroit. In 1944, the organization held a funeral for “Jim Crow,” the evil system of laws and practices that segregated the races and denied equal access to jobs, housing and public accommodations shortly after the Civil War.

Alas, as someone observed, Jim Crow was buried alive. Twenty more years passed before Jim Crow was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the years between, there was relentless struggle, heartache and sacrifice, including deaths. Finally there was triumph. The law was turned from a legal barrier to equal opportunity to a legal protection.

But the burial of the N-word raises a tougher question: How do you change a culture? While you’ll never stop everyone from using a particular word, how do you at least make the word unacceptable, not only for the old and conservative but also for the young and irreverent?

History tells us social change takes time, as it did with Jim Crow. It also takes a lot of effort and sacrifice.

Unlike Jim Crow, changing a law won’t work against objectionable words. Besides First Amendment concerns, it’s hard to keep up with what’s offensive — or to whom.

Mr. Imus knows. Back in 1974, he followed up Richard Pryor’s breakthrough comedy album “That [N-word’s] Crazy” with his own comedy album, “This Honky’s Nuts.” It didn’t go far; mainly it wasn’t all that funny. Nevertheless, neither title would have an easy time getting radio play these days.

If the NAACP has its way, the N-word in hits like Chicagoan Kanye West’s Grammy-winning “Gold Digger” will be taboo. But the word already is bleeped out on most radio and TV stations anyway, which only arouses young appetites for the uncensored version.

That’s the paradox of dealing with the culture of the young. The more you forbid something, the more they want to indulge in it. Still, respect is a highly valued prize among the young. We parents need to be as relentless as the civil rights movement was in teaching our children the difference between the language of self-respect and the words of self-defeat.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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